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MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR
by Kate Hawthorne Jeracki
WHEN THE POWERBALL lottery jackpot climbed above a billion dollars early this year, fevered players searched for experts who could give them a winning edge. They turned to Curtis Bennett (‘85), a mathematics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, for advice.
His words of wisdom, widely quoted in national media? “If you are expecting to win, don’t buy a ticket,” Bennett wrote in the Los Angeles Times opinion section on Jan. 12, the day before three winners split the jackpot. “If you are buying a ticket to fantasize for a short while about having $1.5 billion, that is a different matter. A two-hour movie costs $20, so a $2 lottery ticket only really needs to entertain you for about 12 minutes to have the same value.”
Bennett used the analogy of choosing the one $1,000 bill hidden in a stack of $1 bills reaching from Los Angeles to Tijuana to illustrate the likelihood of winning that jackpot. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune actually did the arithmetic to determine that the stack would contain 293 million bills and cover 181 miles.
“LIBERAL ARTS IS VERY IMPORTANT TO HELP RESEARCHERS UNDERSTAND AND COMMUNICATE THE IMPACT THEY CAN HAVE ON THE WORLD.”
– CURTIS BENNETT
Bennett’s knack for communicating complicated concepts so they are easy for non-mathematicians to grasp has won him numerous awards for outstanding teaching, including the Mathematical Association of America’s prestigious Haimo Award in 2010. He really enjoys using math to show why there is no such thing as a “lucky” place to buy a Powerball ticket and why it was inevitable that there would be more than one winning ticket sold.
While he went from earning his bachelor’s at CSU to his master’s and Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago, Bennett fondly recalls an undergraduate course on Shakespeare for non-English majors.
“Liberal arts is very important, especially for researchers, to help them understand and communicate the impact they can have on the world,” he said. “At the same time, math is good for everyone, to learn how to think and collaborate and understand what the research means. When students say they are scared of math because it’s so difficult, I say that’s because no one has taught them math in a way that makes it interesting.”
Bennett’s Honors thesis advisor, mathematician Rick Miranda, CSU’s provost and executive vice president, said as a student, Bennett was talented, careful, and curious.
“He was very interested in groups and algebra in general, and [his thesis topic] was a problem that wasn’t yet solved. The Honors Program here has traditionally been focused on communication and presentation skills; the requirement to write a solid undergraduate thesis speaks to that in particular.”
Bennett, who graduated from Fort Collins High School, comes by his love of mathematics — and teaching — naturally. His grandfather was a faculty member at the University of Illinois, and his father, Dwight G. Bennett, Jr., DVM, received one of the first Best Teacher Awards presented by the CSU Alumni Association, in 1997.
“My father taught me everything I know about teaching,” Bennett said. “I watched him prepare classes and knew how much he loved teaching veterinary medicine, but I wasn’t interested in going to work at 5 a.m.”
His mother, Jacqueline Bennett (M.S. ’82), earned her master of science in business at CSU, and his older brother, Andrew (’81), now chairs Kansas State University’s math department. Andrew also received the Haimo Award, in 2014, making Curt and Andy the only two brothers to win it.
What are the odds?